Getting Newsmen on the Cheap

Chong Hiu-yeung - General Secretary, HKJA

[中文]  [Jul 2010 - The Journalist] Low pay, long working hours, high turnover rate: these are the realities of the Hong Kong news media industry. The Chief Secretary Henry Tang is aware of this. In a speech delivered at the “Hong Kong News Awards 2009” ceremony held by the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong, he echoed the grievances of reporters: “Although the salary of reporters is yet to touch the threshold of minimum wages, it is not particularly attractive.” Therefore, the media cannot employ talented people and the problem of brain drain has become serious. Tang’s remarks aroused vigorous discussion among reporters in Facebook.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association asked reporters and assignment editors from twenty one media outlets about the entry salary of fresh reporters. In general, the salaries and fringed benefits provided by the electronic media are better than in the print media. The starting salary of most electronic media is above $10,000 a month. Among them, Radio Television Hong Kong pays the best, above $13,000. This looks even more attractive when most media outlets have cut out the year-end bonus. 

Less pay, more rest days

In the print medium only Oriental Daily News, Apple Daily and South China Morning Post offer fresh reporters more than $10,000 per month. The rest offer $9,000 to $10,000, with the lowest offered by Sing Pao and Hong Kong Daily News. (See table 1)

Moreover, reporters at the electronic medium enjoy more off days than those in the print media. All electronic media have a five-day week. Days-off in newspapers vary. Five papers have the five-day week, with the Hong Kong Economic Times (HKET) scheduled to follow suit in July. Eight papers retain the 1.5 days off a week while two others allow journalistic workers four days off every three weeks. The situation is better than a decade or so ago. However, it still lags behind the five-day week promoted by the government.

On the surface salary levels and days off for reporters seem reasonable enough - until working hours are considered. For most journalists the working day lasts 11-12 hours. Even on public holidays. So, salary levels are not attractive at all. The General Manager of Besteam Personnel Consultancy, Mr. So Wai-chung, says $10,000 a month is not too low for fresh graduates, but the long working hours puts a damper on that.

According to the pay level survey conducted by the Hay Group1, the upper quarter value of fresh graduate salary in the private sector is $18,504. The new proposal of the Civil Servant Affairs Bureau recommends a starting salary for graduate degree post of $19,835. (Reporters employed by RTHK are on contract so the salary scales do not apply.) How can the news industry compete with these sectors in recruiting talent?

To make the situation worse, the entry salary is lowered further by inflation. According to the Statistics Department, the accumulative inflation rate since 2001 is 3.6%. However the pay level of fresh reporters has either been frozen or slashed, and the double pay bonus is no longer a certainty. 

When I joined HKET in 2001 upon graduation, the starting salary was $9,500 with two months’ bonus. This was in the contract. Now, HKET offers $9,000 for fresh graduates and the bonus is simply “adjustable”. Apple Daily paid $12,000 for a “freshie” six years ago. Now it is $1,000 less. For the electronic media, TVB news’ entry salary stands at $11,500 which has been unchanged for seven years.

Too Low Starting Salaries Limits Growth

Compared to other parts of the world, Hong Kong reporters are worse off. In Hong Kong dollar terms, reporters in UK start at about $14,000, US begins at $16,000, in Singapore $15,000 and in Canada at $17,000. Although the income tax rate is higher in these countries, property prices are lower than in Hong Kong. In short, it is easy to calculate whether the pay level of Hong Kong reporters is low.

It is very difficult for salaries to rise to a reasonable level if the starting point is low, unless one moves to another company that offers a jump in salary. For example, if the salary of a fresh reporter increases 10 percent annually, he needs to work for seven years to reach the starting level of government undergraduate degree post. However, a 10 percent increase every year for seven years exists only in pipe dreams. 

The net result, of course, is an extremely high turnover rate of reporters in the industry. It now takes only two to three years to change a generation of the frontline journalists when it used to take five years in the past. In last six months, three political beat reporters have quit. They all served the industry for less than three years. The net result is that media outlets have to train fresh reporters continuously, just like the Shao Lin Monastery. When the experience of the news industry cannot be accumulated, the quality of news reporting can only be adversely affected.

The situation is so bad that even middle management complain incessantly because it needs much more time to coach a fresh reporter.

Citizens everywhere have the right to be informed, and to inform. This is of utmost importance for the welfare of society. But if emoluments for reporters are disproportionate to their importance then it is impossible to have quality reporting, quality information. Media owners are also a part of our society and, like everyone else, need to be well-informed.

Table 1Starting Salary of Fresh Reporters in Hong Kong News Industry

News Media Starting salary No. of Days Off (per week)
AM 730 $9,000$10,000 2
Apple Daily $11,000 2
Hong Kong Daily News $8,500 4 days per 3 weeks
Hong Kong Economic Times $9,000$9,500 2
Hong Kong Economic Journal $9,000$10,000 3 days per 2 weeks
Metro Daily $9,000 2
Ming Pao $10,000 3 days per 2 weeks
Oriental Daily News $10,000$11,000 3 days per 2 weeks
Sing Tao Daily $9,000$10,000 3 days per 2 weeks
Sing Pao $8,000$9,000 4 days per 3 weeks
South China Morning Post $11,000$13,000 2
Tai Kung Pao $9,000$9,500 3 days per 2 weeks
Wen Wei Po $9,000$10,000 3 days per 2 weeks
ATV News $9,000$10,000 2
Cable TV News $10,000$11,000 2
Commercial Radio $10,500 2
Hong Kong Broadband $10,000 2
Metro Radio $10,200$10,500 2
now TV $11,500 2
RTHK $13,215 2
TVB News $11,500 2
SourceReporters and assignment editors from different news media

Table 2Emoluments for first degree holders in private sector

Vancancies Starting Salary
Cathay Pacific, Flight Attendant $8,000
Lai Sun Group, Property Trainee $10,000
Hong Kong Institute of Education, Senior Research Assistant $12,400
Ho Yan Kindergarten, Teacher $12,460
Pfizer, Management Trainee $14,000
Sun Hung Kai Property Limited, Management Trainee $16,000
Harmonic Technologies, Programmer $15,000
Tung Wah Hospital, Social Worker $18,885
Commerzbank AG, Management Trainee $30,000
SourceJoint Institution Job Information System web